October 08, 2015

feeding foreign friends

When I was a child, my family and I ate in many different homes, especially during our visits to North America. We were fed many foods we didn't eat in South America, and this was generally an enjoyable experience. Hosts provided strawberries with whipped cream, toasted English muffins with creamed honey and peanut butter, and a delightful variety of sugary breakfast cereals to tickle our tropical tastebuds.

The breakfasts, lunches and dinners we were served blur together in my memory, except for one. Much to my dismay, on that too-memorable day I watched our elderly hosts-du-jour place a glass of reddish-orange juice at each place before our shared meal. I immediately recognized this hated foreign drink called "tomato juice". I knew the horror that lay before me: unless I managed to get clearance from Mom, I would have to drink it, and being forced to drink tomato juice felt like certain death to ten-year-old me.

I don't think of myself as a picky eater, but drinks must be a trouble spot for me. A few years ago in Asia a neighbour generously invited me over for breakfast after an early-morning outing. The meal itself was tasty, but unfortunately the fruity buttermilk drink she put in my cup almost made me gag right then and there. Thankfully, I was with another friend who could tolerate the beverage, so she guzzled hers while I left most of mine in the cup, hoping the hostess wouldn't really notice. Choosing not to drink it was the lesser of two evils, I hoped; coughing buttermilk onto the tablecloth probably would have been worse.

Have you ever had a similar experience of being invited to someone's house for a meal, only to be fed something that you virtually could not swallow? Food you can't enjoy (but feel forced to eat) makes you uncomfortable. On the other hand, food that you can enjoy not only makes your visit pleasant, but it usually makes you want to visit again!

Since moving away from North America, and especially since being in Europe, I have been learning about hosting guests of cultures different than my own. Here, we rarely have North American guests, so we are always wondering what others will like and feeding people who grew up eating differently than we did. I've been convicted that I should try harder to make our guests feel comfortable with the foods I choose to serve. Sure, we have the freedom to feed our guests anything we want, but it serves them and builds our friendship when we feed them things they can enjoy.

The biggest lesson I've learned about feeding guests of a different culture (you can stop reading after this paragraph if you want) is to use ingredients which are somewhat familiar to them. Usually you don't want to make something that is extremely different than what they are accustomed to eating or drinking, because they may not like it. But you also don't want to exactly imitate something that they had back home, because you probably won't make it as well as Mom did. If you're not very familiar with what people from particular parts of the world eat, Google is your friend. Ask it, "What do Arabs eat?" or look up "typical foods in Tunisia" and get an idea of what they are accustomed to, so that you can make something with a few familiar ingredients. I realized this when both our Indian and Syrian friends enjoyed this bulgar salad. I think that this is because it has ingredients that are familiar to them (bulgar, chick peas, cucumber, bell pepper), but perhaps they have never eaten those ingredients in a salad format before, so it is a different twist on flavours they can enjoy.

But maybe you don't know where to find bulgar or don't have a clue how to make chick peas. You can learn, or you can read on....

Another possibility is to feed international guests a meal or snack from your home country, adjusted to their cultural tastes as needed. Wouldn't you be excited if your Italian friend had you over for pasta, or your Middle Eastern friend brought you homemade baklava? As North Americans we don't have so many traditional foods as some countries, but burgers and fries, "meat and three", homemade loaf bread, chocolate chip cookies, pie or cupcakes are things your guests may feel privileged to eat in a North American's home. TexMex can be interesting to people of other cultures, because it is a twist on some ingredients they may have eaten before (like cilantro, beans, tomatoes, beef) mixed with other not-too-scary ingredients (cheese, avocado, tortilla chips). Some flavours or cuisines seems to be universally enjoyable, such as pizza, pasta, or chocolate.

If some of the ingredients in the meal you want to serve are a bit unusual, allowing people to pick their own toppings or mix and match ingredients on their own plates works well. I saw my friends in Asia serve meals like this successfully many times. I sometimes serve a salad as a meal, but have five or more bowls on the table with different options of toppings and dressings, which lets everyone pick something that suits him or her.

Here are a few commonalities I've noticed about guests from specific backgrounds:

For Hindu or Indian guests: Hindus range from vegetarian (some don't even eat eggs) to eating virtually any meat except beef. If I don't know them well yet, I usually try to feed them a vegetarian meal just to be on the safe side, because sometimes even the meat-eaters are not eating "non veg" due to a special fast or festival. Some might say they eat meat to seem more Western, but might be more comfortable eating a vegetarian meal. You can always ask ahead of time if they eat meat, or keep meat separate as an optional add-in. Also, south Indians are used to eating rice, and north Indians to flatbreads of various kinds. They virtually all like their food well-seasoned and spicy, and putting hot sauce on the table is a good idea, because you probably don't like it as spicy as they do. They are used to having their tea with lots of milk and sugar in it, and usually they like black tea—fruity or herbal teas are less known to them.

For Musl!m or Arabic-speaking guests: I have gathered that they are accustomed to eating meat, rice, kebab and flatbread. Probably most Arab men like some meat on their plate, though of course, not pork! The meat might need to be halal (such as from a Turkish grocery store). Anything that could possibly contain pork gelatin, like gummy bears, should be avoided if they're conservative. I've noticed that they like tea (green tea with honey and ginger seems to be a win) but only after the meal. If they're at your house around prayer time, you might want to make them comfortable to pray if needed. I've learned some of this also by visiting in our Syrian friends' home and seeing what is normal for them.

For Western European guests: Western Europeans use much less sugar than North Americans do. This has been a good thing for me to learn; lately I'm baking cake with half the sugar and hardly noticing the difference! They don't drink much pop and like their food fresh. Germans aren't guaranteed to be adventurous with spice or exotic ingredients, and using some of their sturdy staples like potatoes, meat, apples, bread, etc. is usually a recipe for success if you don't know your guests well. Good coffee is often appreciated by Europeans.

These are very general guidelines, but talk to your guests, and find out if they have any allergies, preferences or dietary restrictions. When feeding immigrants, their willingness to try new things might depend on their age (young people might be more flexible than older adults), personality (our easy-going Chinese friends enjoyed TexMex) and how long they've been out of their homeland (the longer they've lived outside their home country, the more they've likely adapted to local foods, especially if they came when they were quite young, or came alone, not with a wife or mother who has been cooking their traditional cuisine every day). The strictness of their diet or whether or not they drink alcohol might depend on how conservative they are. Of course, there are picky eaters or vegetable juice haters in almost any culture. Asking their preferences always communicates respect.

So, do you have to be super-hostess to invite a foreign friend over? I am living proof that you don't need to be. I've spoken a lot about food here, but I am not an excellent cook. The chicken tonight was dry; last week our Wednesday soup was too spicy and Germans were turning red eating it. My husband is too temperate to tell you of the the meals I've destroyed with too much garlic, too much salt, or too much time under the broiler. But the more meals I cook, the more I learn. The more international guests we host, the more trends and preferences I pick up on. Preparing and serving homemade meals is always quite a bit of work, but it does get easier and faster with practice.

Why does it matter what we serve our guests of other cultures? Isn't the heart behind hospitality much more important than the menu? Yes, but what better way to show guests what is in your heart than by putting care and thought into choosing a pleasing menu? Our friends who are far from their home cultures are probably extra-appreciative of love. Fine-tuning your hospitality to different types of guests serves to build bridges into their lives. If they are at ease (not nervously choking down buttermilk) and they see that you care about them, they're more to open their hearts. Rosaria Butterfield's words in this interview resounded with me:
"Hospitality is not about putting sprinkles on your [cupcakes]. It is a form of spiritual engagement, even perhaps a form of spiritual warfare….you want to always make sure the strength of your words matches the strength and integrity of your relationships. If you want to talk to your neighbours about sin you had better be friends first, you had better be able to be people who have shared a meal together..." 
A thoughtfully-prepared, prayed-over meal can be a bridge to deepen relationships and talk about what really matters. Serve food that makes your international friends feel comfortable. Prepare a meal or snack that makes them feel loved and looked after. And please, if you have learned anything from this post, don't force your guests' children to down tomato juice!

Note: If you liked this post and are thinking about hospitality, you might like to read other hospitality posts, especially this one that talks about why we prefer, when we can, to invite people in instead of taking them out. If you have experience hosting foreign friends and can contribute, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

September 17, 2015

my place in his arms

Last Saturday evening we ate something I tried to hoodwink my husband into believing was supper. Roasted kuri squash with feta sprinkled on top, and green beans cooked with almonds and butter. No meat, no starch—not really a full meal, according to either of our mothers, I'm sure. But it was our supper.

I put our plates on the table, and my husband spun from the laptop where he had spent the last five hours job hunting, to face his plate of vegetables. We quietly cut squash into bite-size pieces with the sides of our forks and discussed his employment search. (Last week we learned that his current job is ending, and that there is a 90% chance that we'll need to move to another place in the next six months or so.)

The squash was a bit too much for him to finish, because his beans ran out and he liked eating the beans and squash together. He left a few harvest-orange chunks on his plate and was ready to turn back to his job hunt. I said, "Let's hang out a bit longer" and then salt water started dripping from the corner of my eye, down my nose—only the first of many tears. He was probably wondering why I was crying. But he patiently put his arm around me and let me try to explain. 

I remember the first day he did that, I mean, the first day that he put his arm around me. It was for a picture, when he visited me in Asia the first time. My smile in those photos was one of the widest ever, because I realized that not only did this man come all the way from Europe to meet me, but that after a few days with the real-life me, he still liked me. He wanted me to be close to his side.

Five months later, he sat me down in a historic American park and put a fidgety arm around me. He asked me to marry him and be his helper-completer. In other words, he said I was the bone missing from his ribcage. And with tears, of course, I said yes to his proposal. I imagined our life, shoulder-to-shoulder, doing His work.

On the day of our wedding—the day of the gladness of our hearts—he covenanted his love to me. And then he patiently wrapped his arm around my shoulder time after time on the church stage and in the church basement, until his lips felt like rubber from so many half-smiles for photos coming from all directions.

Last weekend, he put his arm around me again and listened to what made me cry: that the relationships I have begun to make here will meet an early end. The shuffling and selling and sorting that a move brings doesn't delight me either, but it is the emotional expense that I fear the most. Beyond that, I fear that this might be the first move of various, until he finds the job that suits him best. I try to explain that I fear all this moving will gut me, like I just gutted the squash.

It was obvious that the thought of moving does not make him feel the same way as it does me.
He has worked long and hard in anticipation of this. It has been nearly five years since he moved abroad, always knowing that this was in preparation for the next step in his career. For him, the thought of working on new projects, even if that means moving to a new place, is rather exciting. 

I see moving from an emotional perspective, after having made many moves in recent years. He sees moving from a practical perspective, and knows that it will likely be necessaryEven when our points of view are different, I always like to be in my husband's arms. They're strong and manly, yet gentle and kind. As we sat together last Saturday and I explained my tears, and he explained his thoughts, I was reminded of this: his arms are not enough. To some this realization would be devastating, but for me, it was not: I know that I can rest in my eternal Lover's arms. He will understand and carry me.

Actually, not only can I rest in my eternal Lover's arms, but I must, if I want to rest in my finite husband's arms. My husband is doing an excellent thing—exercising his dominion over creation and providing for me. If I want to be a wife with a quiet heart, a faithful helper, I must rest my full weight on the strongest arms...and those arms are not my husband's. Expressing my emotions to my husband is appropriate at times, but more important is pouring out my struggle with the only One who can really ease my worries. The Almighty One can help me to block the impending goodbyes from my view, and keep loving locally, and keep giving my husband the encouragement and support that he needs to pursue employment.

As women we dream of the day when a man will wrap his arm around us, invite us to shoulder life together, and covenant his love to us. Getting married can be good and right, but in a sense it is easy, too! Fall in love? Sure! Receive a diamond? Yes, sign me up! Get a nice new white dress and have a party? OK, can do! But the true nature of our womanhood comes to the fore when we're roasting squash, boiling beans and watching our husbands follow God's calling and apply for far-away jobs. Is our trust in God great enough that we can help and support the man He has given to us? No matter how strong they look, husbands need their wives' strength. Wives need their husbands' strength. And most of all, we all need the Father's strength. Saying "yes" to marriage is easy, but giving constant, daily support to another is impossible with out the stronger, everlasting arms beneath us. 

Our unbalanced vegetable dinner is digesting. Our conversation doesn't come to a grand and glorious conclusion, except that we decide it is not helpful for me to hear the name of each city or country where my husband has applied for a job. (I tend to start imagining life in that new place, until the next city name comes up. After hearing 20 different city names, this gets emotionally exhausting.) Our future plans are unclear, but this much is clear: my work is to keep helping my husband. It is my Father's will that I stay at his side, no matter where he goes. I do not know my next place in a geographical sense, but I do know my place in His plan: to rest with my husband's arms around me, and the everlasting arms beneath me. Here, my soul goes from clamorous to quiet.

"A foolish woman is clamorous...." 

"...let [your adornment] be the hidden person of the heart,
with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit,
which is very precious in the sight of God...."

"This is what the Sovereign LORD...says: 
"In repentance and rest is your salvation, 
in quietness and trust is your strength..."

"His left arm is under my head, and his right arm embraces me."
—Solomon's wife, of Solomon

"Do you have an arm like God's...?"
—God to Job

"...nor did their arm bring them victory; 
it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, 
for you loved them."
—David, in the 44th Psalm

"My hand will sustain him; surely my arm will strengthen him."
—God, via Ethan the Ezrahite

September 10, 2015

as peaceable as possible

Have you ever had a job where everyone plays the lottery together? I had one such job for quite a few years. The tickets were just $2 or occasionally $5 each, and a coworker with a clipboard would come around collecting money every other week or so, record who had contributed, and then go buy tickets with whatever she collected. The idea, of course, was to improve our odds of winning by pooling our money, buying lots of tickets, and sharing the winnings.

When the collector would come around, the response in our department was virtually always the same. My supervisor would stand up, pull some coins from the pocket of his coat he hung behind the door, and joke about stealing the $2 from his kids' allowances. The rest of the coworkers in the room would shell out a few dollars each. And as for me, I never played.

One day a different coworker started collecting the money. When I said I preferred not to buy a ticket, she said, as if she had been prepped about me, "Oh, yeah, you don't play for religious reasons." I wanted to tell her that it wasn't really for religious reasons; or at least that a little financial common sense would also suggest that she not play the lottery, either. But before I could thoroughly explain myself, she was picking up twonies from someone else in the room.

Not playing the lottery sort of became my thing. Often the company owner and I were the only ones in the whole building who didn't put money into the pot. Good-natured teasing came my way, about how I'd have to work when the rest of them were retiring early. Then the owner, overhearing the jokes, would tell me that I would be guaranteed a wage hike and be second in command if the rest of them left for Tahiti with their lottery winnings. We would all laugh.

I did more than my own share of teasing back. I would joke about what I could buy with all the money I'd saved by not putting in my $2 each week. I would talk about the Reese's I was going to get from the candy machine with my $2, and remind them how $5 bought a tasty sandwich at the grocery store down the road. When occasionally the collector would happily announce that they had won $20, I would smile and ask her how much money it had cost them to get $20. Then I would tease, "I wonder if I could find a bank that would give me that kind of interest! If I could put in $50, and get only $20 back! What a bargain...!" We would banter back and forth.

Then one day I read Paul's instruction, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." When that verse took root in my heart, I realized that while some of our talk was in good fun, my teasing about my coworkers' decision to lose money each week (insinuating that they were unintelligent or irresponsible) was not really peaceable living. So, I stopped teasing (at least about that).

During those years I thought a lot about what winsome, peaceable communication looks like. Some days as the smokers in my department zipped up their winter coats in preparation for inhaling hazardous toxins outside, a couple of non-smokers would seize the opportunity to rag them about the dangers of smoking. While I agreed that smoking is unhealthy and unwise, I decided not to participate in this teasing because I realized that poking and prodding about topics like these would probably mean the loss of opportunities for more meaningful conversations about God, for example, or purpose or morality. I sought to cut down on my teasing about things that didn't really matter in the long term (believe it or not, there are smokers and gamblers amongst the redeemed) and look for those little opportunities to squeeze in more important (and even potentially-controversial) words, though those opportunities seemed few and far between. For me, this was an important lesson and something I'm still learning.

Lately, I've been watching with some concern how well-meaning believers throw highly controversial articles up on Facebook and—to use the same word Paul did—disturb the peace. You know what I mean; I'm talking opinionated posts about topics that tend to be divisive:
gun legislation
the definition of marriage
contraception, or
a particular diet.
Some people get sort of accidentally caught in controversy. (You didn't know that Aunt Fran had strong opinions about Shetland ponies? Well, she does.) But it appears to me that others are not posting gently or peaceably; they're practically wanting to stir up their followers who disagree with them on important issues.

I understand that truth by its very nature is divisive and at times offensive. I do believe that there is a place for using social media to raise awareness for concerns or crimes that the regular media is not covering (such as the recent videos exposing the systematic killing of babies). I too have strong opinions on both important and unimportant subjects—remember, I was one out of about forty employees who, week after week, didn't play the lottery. But when I try to bring Paul's teaching to bear on social media sharing, I ask: Is posting this the best way to live peaceably with the people who might read it? 

I heard Facebook described as an awkward party that you feel you can't leave and truly, that is what is has become for many people. Chances are that unless you've been very selective in your friending, you're followed by everyone: the vegan pro-abortion neighbour; the conservative head-covering cousin with ten children; your mother, who comments on everything you share; your quiet childhood friend whom you haven't seen in twenty years...and everyone in between. What to one is an encouraging post is to another deeply offensive. To make things worse, in an online "conversation" most vital communication cues such as tone of voice or timing don't come across so well. Truth is truth—but all of our friends are at different levels of readiness to accept truth and have different levels of trust in us and our message. Why even try to be peaceable when it seems virtually impossible? Well, because Paul also enjoined us to "speak the truth in love." Paul didn't use social media, but this was his strategy: "I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some."

How can we share the truth in love? How can we be peaceable when so much that we believe seems counter-cultural? Here are a few ideas I've had.
  1. Communicate difficult truths less through social media outlets, and more through live conversations and relationships. Initiate real life (or at the very least, private message!) conversations with people about topics that not everyone would be edified by seeing. Most of my unbelieving friends could probably guess quite accurately my views on the above listed issues (except about Shetland ponies—I tend to keep my views about them quite private).  But it is one thing for them to see my views in their Facebook feed—it's quite another for us to peaceably discuss them over supper at my house or in a quiet corner of the lunchroom. Real relationships can be severely damaged or at least hindered because of digital conversations that have not been well-planned. You'll probably also find that people are less abrasive when discussing a topic in person. Speaking of which...
  2. Don't post things that you wouldn't have the courage to discuss or say in person, if you were talking to the people who can see what you post. Some people are all bravado on the internet, but sheepish in person. I can easily be that person, because my written words are often stronger than my spoken ones, and there was an incident this year after which I determined to try to follow this rule myself. Be a voice of peace in every setting, because whether it is your digital voice or your physical voice, it should be the voice of Christ. 
  3. Do post (and like and comment) with your entire audience in mind. Suit your posts to your audience. If you want to post things that aren't appropriate for every single person in your feed, Facebook allows you to limit your audience for your posts. Some content could be meaningful to your believing friends but alienating to your unbelieving friends. To me, giving people ideas which they are not prepared to appreciate seems like throwing pearls before swine, or sowing your best seeds on unplowed, weedy soil. For example, in recent weeks I posted on Facebook about Rosaria Butterfield to a  limited audience. The truths she shares are precious pearls for those who are receptive; but others will trample the same pearls. (Note: check other settings as well; just because you're not posting on controversial topics doesn't mean that you're not liking or commenting on things that show up in all of your 600 friends' feeds.) 
  4. Pray about your posts. I do think that there are times when a post can be controversial but also appropriate, when shared in a peaceful, loving way. If you are posting something of this nature, pray about the post or comment, asking God whether it is wise, and if you do post it, ask God to use it to draw people to Himself and not to push them away.  
As far as I know, my former coworkers have still not won the lottery. They continue to work the eight to four-thirty shift and put their $2, sometimes $5, into the lottery each week. Maybe they still smoke, or tease the smokers. Since I've known them, some of them may have spent upwards of $700 just on the office lottery. (Let's not even talk about the cost of cigarettes). There's about 1 in 10,000,000 chances that someday they'll win "the big one" and message me gleefully...however, I might not get the message until later...maybe I'll be off spending my $700 plus interest on my dream trip to Russia. (There's still some tease left in me!)

Lottery players seldom win, but wisdom always wins big in the end. Maybe it's that assurance that we have that makes us eager to share truth with everyone we know—we are confident that the truth will prevail. It is a good thing to be confident in what He has promised. But let's be wise stewards of our digital communication by choosing fewer and better words. Let's share more of His Word, and less of superfluous human opinion. We're called to be strong and courageous, but we're also called to be peaceable and loving. The message of the gospel itself is offensive enough—may we wisely add no personal offence to it.

"Like apples of gold in settings of silver 
Is a word spoken in right circumstances." 

"The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable..." 

"...a word spoken in due season, how good it is!" 

"Through patience a ruler can be persuaded,
and a gentle tongue can break a bone." 

"Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves...Therefore 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

 "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God..." 
—writer to the Hebrews

September 03, 2015

the poor in God's kingdom

As soon as we rounded the corner, we could see that we were in a different kind of neighbourhood. It is hard to describe what makes you instantly know that "poverty lives here". Maybe it's the rows upon rows of simple, matching apartment blocks. Maybe it's the old paint and the blackened remains around a window of a room that obviously was burned. Maybe it's the three-year-old dressed in a too-tight onesie, or the young men and children who clump so quickly around any activity in the neighbourhood, because they have nothing else to do. Maybe it's all of the above, together, or maybe it's your friend parking the car and saying, "We're here. This is the refugees' area." The living conditions in the refugee neighbourhood we visited, while not nearly as bad as in some parts of the world, were far below the Western European standard. Seeing their poverty and struggle always raises the question: how can we help the poor? 

Unless you've been living under a rock (I just wanted to use that expression sometime) you must know about the refugee crisis in Europe. We heard that at least 650,000 refugees have arrived in Germany already this year, and the prediction is that the number may rise to 750,000 refugees by the end of 2015. That's more than the current population of Frankfurt, just in refugees, just in one year. Today the nations that were once the "Christian nations" of the world are being called upon to gather up the poor escapees of wars and turbulence in other lands, and they are struggling to know how to handle the influx.

Christians have long been known for their sympathy for the poor, and Christian nations for their strong and (sometimes) benevolent middle class. When Christians speak of helping the poor, they probably reference the New Testament or Proverbs the most, but the laws of the historical kingdom that the Lord set up through Moses (given in the Pentateuch) have much wisdom to contribute to the challenge of how to help today's poor. We always face the problem of balancing handouts or generosity with hard work and fiscal responsibility. The kingdom of God on earth was set up to balance grace and truth for all, and we see this in the laws God gave to Moses.

The following thoughts were collected from Alva J. McClain's The Greatness of the Kingdom (pp. 75-81), in a section entitled "The Economic Aspect of the Historical Kingdom", which I've been reading lately. Quotations below, unless otherwise attributed, are from McClain.

When God miraculously brought Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, He gave them a specific role on earth and as their King, and He gave the divinely-inspired Law to Moses. Upon entering Canaan, the Israelites' original wealth came from three places: their flocks and herds which they had in Egypt, the gold and silver which they plundered from Egypt while leaving, and the land that God gave them in Canaan. Every family in Israel was allotted a piece of land, which they could farm, rent out, mortgage, abandon, temporarily sell...but the only thing they were not to do was permanently sell their family's land. The land was seen as belonging to their King Jehovah, and while they had the right to private possession of it, they were to keep it for God's people, Israel.

We can see from how God structured Israelite law that his ideal world was not one where everyone earned the same wage, no matter how hard they worked. God knows that "if men are to enjoy any satisfactory measure of personal liberty in economic affairs—men being what they are, widely different in disposition and ability—some will gain and others will lose." God made provisions and gave instructions so that all could have the possibility to prosper financially, but He was also realistic enough to admit, in Deuteronomy 15:11, that "there will always be poor people in the land". God built into his kingdom a plan to help balance out some of the inequalities that would no doubt arise. 

#1: The "haves" were expected to be generous to the "have nots" in a way that maintained the dignity of the poor. Despite of the fact that all the original Israelites had land, in Deuteronomy 15 provisions were made for the poor, saying that even if they lost their land, they would always have food to eat. Some of the grapes and grain were to be left in the fields and could be gleaned by the needy (Lev. 19:9-10, Deut. 24:19-22). McClain comments that this system gave the poor some work and a way to maintain some dignity—they didn't stand outside the tabernacle and receive bags of grain already ground and bottles of wine already pressed, they had some work to do to gather their own food. This provided a way to keep body and soul together while working to better themselves economically.

Cheerful and willing generosity to the poor was taught in Deuteronomy 15, “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.....you shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’"

If money were loaned to a poor man, interest was not to be charged (Lev. 25:35-37). In the seventh year (Sabbatical year) the soil was given rest and whatever grew in the fields that year, the poor were free to reap and gather (Lev 25:4-5, Ex. 23:11). King Jehovah's expectation of the rich's attitude toward the poor was this: "Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God." (Lev. 25:17).

#2: The Sabbath year (every seventh year) provided some relief for the poor. Deut. 15:1-3 describes a release from debt that was given to the debtors every seven years, in the Sabbath years. It seems that this was likely not a full debt cancellation, but a year of grace. This seemed to coincide with the year in which the land rested, too, and the debtors would have less opportunity to work and earn wages that year, so it seems that this was built in to the system to protect the poor from being asked to repay debt in a year where they had less income than ever.

#3: The year of Jubilee (every fiftieth year) provided a fresh start for the poor. The year of Jubilee protected from permanent impoverishment of families in Israel (Lev. 25). Every fiftieth year, the slaves went free, debts incurred in connection to land were cancelled, and men could reclaim their land if they had lost it due to sale or poor management. This was not a communist-style redistribution of wealth, but a restoration of real property to its real, private owners. This gracious "reset" every fifty years allowed enough time for the industrious to be rewarded for their industry and the lazy or poor managers to feel the consequences of their lack of industry, but provided a boost or a fresh start for those who had failed financially to try again. McClain notes that this ingenious idea of land redistribution once every fifty years seems to have been unique to Israel. "It allowed, on one hand, considerable room for the play of individual initiative and energy with their proper rewards. But, at the same time, it guarded against the evils of great concentrations of real wealth in the hands of a few, with the consequent hopeless impoverishment of many others."

#4: The law of redemption allowed for land to be redeemed before the Jubilee year. If a man or his near relative were financially able to buy back lost property before the year of Jubilee, provisions were made for this, so that he could use his land to produce an income for himself again.

It is important to recognize that the Biblical record is unique in its entire law code, including in the provisions it made so that wealth could be more balanced, so that what we now call a "middle class" could result.  McClain quotes T. H. Huxley: "The Bible has been the Magna Charta of the poor, and of the oppressed; down to the modern times no state has had a constitution in which the interests of the people are so largely taken into account, in which the duties, so much more than the privileges, of rulers are so insisted upon, as that drawn up for Israel in Deuteronomy and Leviticus."

How does knowing what God taught about the poor in His kingdom help us today? I do not believe that it is our duty to seek to impose the Jewish law code on our world. But as believers, we should seek to understand God's great wisdom displayed when God set up His government on earth. Our world is struggling with the widening economic gaps, and simultaneously, people are becoming less and less familiar with the Bible (even believers, who disregard the Old Testament as confusing or outdated). Perhaps there is a connection—that while God's Word collects dust, societal problems get worse? It is a Christian's duty, as salt and light, to share God's great wisdom with a world that is decaying (needing salt) and darkened (needing light). In caring for the poor, God's kingdom furnished a system of checks and balances that blessed diligence, but also showed mercy to the poor. As long as there are poor, His wisdom about the problem of poverty will be important.

"Your word, LORD, is eternal;
it stands firm in the heavens."
—Psalm 119

August 27, 2015

of pie and pain

Our Syrian friend came over to help us eat pie. My husband phrased the invitation as a cry for help, "We have too much pie and need someone to eat it with us." Our friend came to our assistance and I teased him when he arrived, "If the pie is good, I made it. If it's not, my husband made it." But actually, my husband and I made it together. Those are his handsome hands rolling the dough below.

When our friend stepped into the kitchen, he saw the pie sitting on the table, with its woven lattice top and blackberry-apple goodness oozing from inside. He said,
"It has been a long time since 
I have seen a dessert like this."

When I piled vanilla ice cream on top of his slice, he said,
"It makes me happy even to look at this."

When he drank homemade iced green tea, he said,
"My mother always made drinks like this."

Maybe these phrases just sound like those of a mama's boy who is far from home. But when he asked for photos from the day we met on a lovely hike, he said,
"Sometimes when I feel like dying, 
I like to look at pictures from happy times."

"Sometimes when I feel like dying..."?
These are the real emotions of a man escaping war.

In the span of a few weeks, I've heard what feels like too many painful stories. Breast cancer, marriage problems, financial crises, a flood of refugees, a baby conceived out of wedlock...hurt after hurt. Not to mention the sorrow of our friend who came for pie. His family is still in Syria, in danger, and every day he knows pain like I have never known.

There is no quick fix or glue-on patch that we can offer to friends in pain. In fact, what we can do seems so basic. We pick berries and make pie and wipe the table again and light candles and send invitations and wash dishes. We pray and share truth as we are able. Then we go to bed and another day, we do it all again. Sometimes our efforts seem so simple and small, in the face of huge suffering.

After all, doesn't faith do big things?
"By faith Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going..."
"By faith Sarah bore a child when she was past the age..."
"By faith Moses refused to be call the son of Pharaoh's daughter..."
"By faith we...made pie?"
One of these things is not like the others.

But it takes faith to believe that God is powerful enough to take earthly elements like flour and shortening mixed with prayer and conversation, and somehow weave them into His eternal plan. It takes faith to believe that He was "acquainted with grief" so that we would not need to be grieved eternally. Isaiah's "Man of Sorrows" went through those sorrows so that He could transform wounded people into whole ones, hurt people into healed ones. "By His stripes we are healed." In this world bowed down with troubles, it takes faith to believe in and to point others to the only One who can bind up their wounds.

By faith we do the small things set before us,
asking Him to do the big thing:
to take this pie, and use it for the pain.

"I have told you these things, 
so that in me you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble.
But take heart! I have overcome the world.
—The Man of Sorrows/The Prince of Peace

August 12, 2015


I've never been so happy to hear someone say that he's angry at God. It happened last Wednesday evening at our table.

Wednesday...the day that has quickly become our favourite day of the week.

Since February, almost every Wednesday night we've had a small group of people gather at our apartment. Other than our faithful friends who co-host with us, and a few new friends who've come quite regularly, the attendees change from week to week. We've had zero to six guests at at time, not counting our co-hosts.

The set-up for our Wednesday evenings is simple, we eat (soup in the winter, salad in the summer), we sing a couple of songs, and then we:
  1. Look back - we share something we are thankful for and something we want prayer for, 
  2. Look up - we read and discuss a short passage of the Word and ask three questions:
    1. What does this passage say about God?
    2. What does this passage say about mankind?
    3. How can I apply this passage to my life this week?
  3. Look forward - we practice retelling the story or something else that we might be able to pass along to others.
Perhaps what makes this group unique is that its supposed to be for people who aren't so familiar with our Book. Also, though the language spoken outside our doors in German, in our group we speak mostly English, which makes it good for people who want to practice their English, or who are most comfortable in English.

So that's what we do on Wednesdays or Mittwochs. (It's not so hard; in fact, you could do it too—that's why I'm sharing the details).

But back to the friend who is apparently angry at God. In the "1. Look back" portion of the evening, no one is ever forced to pray, but everyone is encouraged to give a request for others to pray for. Communicating personally with God and sharing concerns for prayer is something I take for granted, but it was obvious that sharing a prayer request was something one of our Asian friends had never done before. The first week or two, he didn't really share any concerns or requests, but he kept coming. Then, on Wednesday #3 or #4, he showed he was learning the ropes—he requested that we pray for someone he had known back home.

On the most recent Wednesday, and as we went around the table, our requests were pretty normal ones:
one person wanted direction for his job search;
another wanted safety and success in her studies in Italy;
another wants guidance for a meeting with refugee children;
and I asked that we pray for a sick friend who often comes on Wednesdays.

We came to our Asian friend last, and he said:
"I am very angry at God.
I haven't spoken to Him in a long time.
We...could...pray...for that."

As I said, I've never been so happy to hear someone say that he's angry at God. To clarify, I wasn't happy that he is angry at God. I was just happy and honoured that he opened his heart to us. One of the reasons I love Wednesdays is that our guests are willing to talk about spiritual things. Our conversations are interesting and get more meaningful the longer we know these friends.

But even so, I often wonder how realistic is it for us to expect someone of a completely different background,
(whether that be
or anything else)
to sit around our table, receive the Word, and "mix it with faith". Can the girl who is daily hearing higher criticism of our text ever accept it in childlike faith? What about the psychology student, who tells me that to believe in God is to go against everything her coworkers and professors believe about how the universe works? What about the Asian with his relativistic morality that allows for anything, really? Does that "mixing with faith" really happen, or would we be better off watching Netflix on Wednesday nights?

We read this book recently, and it reminded us that people do come to faith, and it reminded us how. The author, Qureshi, was raised in North America by loving, conservative Pakistani parents who  taught him to defend their faith. Yet Quereshi tells of his journey to becoming a child of God (which ultimately led to alienation from his earthly family).

The entire book is powerfully written, but the most memorable paragraphs for me were these, in the chapter entitled "Becoming Brothers". Here he explains how important relationship was to him in the transfer of truth:
"Unfortunately, I have found that many Christians think of evang. as foisting Christian beliefs on strangers in chance encounters. The problem with this approach is that the gospel requires a radical life change, and not many people are about to listen to strangers telling them to change the way they live. What do they know about others' lives?
On the other hand, if a true friend shares the exact same message with heartfelt sincerity, speaking to specific circumstances and struggles, then the message is loud and clear. 
Effective evang. requires relationships. There are very few exceptions. 
In my case, I knew of no Christian who truly cared about me, no one who had been a part of my life through thick and thin. I had plenty of Christian acquaintances, and I'm sure they would have been my friends if I had become a Christian, but that kind of friendship is conditional. There were none that I knew who cared about unconditionally. Since no Christian cared about me, I did not care about their message."
It wasn't that Qureshi didn't know any believers, it was that none of them had ever taken the time to be his friend. What I found so encouraging about Quereshi's story was that it really just through one faithful, unconditional friend sowing seeds and loving long that he came to faith. 

Though I speak of Wednesdays, our Wednesdays often spill over into weekends or other weekdays now, when we try to invite a Wednesday friend for sandwiches or popcorn, or receive or offer help with paperwork or moving. Most of the people who've come to our Wednesday gathering have met us or our co-hosts in other settings. Sometimes they've met our co-hosts through their business or are invited by a friend who is already attending. Some have already eaten at our table a few times before they visit us on a Wednesday; a few we met in the town square one weekend. Wednesdays aren't Wednesdays without Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Because if who we are on the other days isn't consistent with who we purport to be on Wednesdays, our friends will see right through us. Authentic relationship means not just giving out a "good for Wednesdays only" friendship voucher, but being accessible and proactive in those relationships on other days of the week, too.

Sometimes it is easier to turn people into projects. The temptation is to replay recorded responses instead of pursuing real relationship. It's easier to push our way through a conversation with our elbows out, defending our beliefs; it's harder to wait with our arms wide open, listen, and learn to ask helpful questions that draw out that which is in another person's heart. As someone who likes to talk and write and be heard, and someone who has strong convictions, this is something I must learn: to be slow to speak, and quick to listen.

People sometimes say that they have trouble finding our flat, because the doors inside our building don't have numbers on them. Recently when someone commented on this, our Asian friend chided her. He had noticed that our apartment is easy to identify: "This flat is the only one that has a 'Welcome' sign on the door."

And friends, it isn't much harder than that. The 'Welcome' sign cost one euro. Making friends and listening long costs more. But if you make people welcome into your life, any day of the week, every day of the week, they will notice.  If your faith is deep, they will notice. And surely they'll see the connection between the welcome you offer and the faith that you proffer. As Quereshi says, if you care about them, it's a lot more likely that they will care about your message and share their hearts with you. We got a glimpse of that, last Wednesday.

August 09, 2015

somehow, He does

Today we visited a neighbourhood full of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and other countries. Some of them have been there for years and have settled into apartment blocks, but others arrived as recently as ten days ago and are sleeping on cots in tents put up by the Red Cross. For me it was the first time visiting a designated "refugee neighbourhood", though I'm sure the scene must be similar at many facilities across Europe.

It's hard to understand how much the children we saw today have suffered, or the burdens they must carry. I ended up painting rowdy children's faces for a couple of hours and I wondered, between painting flowers (the girls' favourite request) and Spidermen (the boys' favourite) how painting a face can make a lasting difference for a child escaping war or starvation. Does it have any impact at all?

But lately I've been remembering that to believe in the God of the B!ble is to believe in a God so big that He can work even tiny things (like paint and a smile on a summer day) together for good. When I wasn't too distracted trying to draw webs correctly or reminding kids to wait their turn and not jostle each other, I tried to remind God of the little hearts belonging to the faces appearing in front of me. "See this little Spiderman, God? Remember him. See this little butterfly? Remember her."

And I know that somehow, He does.

July 31, 2015

when God is heavy

[Sometimes I look back in my files and see an almost-finished post. This one's from Asia, in 2014.]

It's a quiet weekend morning and I'm stretched across the foot of my friend's double bed, staring at the delicate pattern in her white curtain. I'm listening as she slowly divulges a dark story about her friend's poor decisions. Disappointment makes her voice drop and scrape as she talks about what is a heavy topic for a lazy Saturday morning. She swears me to secrecy about the weight she's carrying.

Not long later, I'm sitting on a second friend's bed and the story she tells me is similar in its gravity. Her neighbour literally chose his "neighbour's wife" over his own. Her tone is disgusted and distraught as she recounts the lurid tale, her eyes dark and fretful. "This is wrong! It's wrong!" I listen, and agree: it is wrong! (But what makes it wrong? How does she know it is wrong? Who says?)

I sit on a lot of beds; it's normal here. Our deeper conversations often take place in a female friend's room, her relational sanctum-sanctorum, if you will. One friend even laughed at the idea that we would sit and visit in the living room; she wanted us to visit in her bedroom. Something else is normal here, too, and it's not as laughablefriends carrying heavy burdens.

I hear statements like, "I am OK with one affair, but to have three or four affairs in quick succession? Now that is wrong!" Or, "I don't lie...except when it's a situation that I just can't escape without lying." As I shift on the end of the bed and listen to the sad stories unwind, it weighs on me to see how little distinction there is between truth and lies.

I shouldn't be surprised, because at times a friend mentions how his father taught him to lie about his age, or how her mother laughed off her small thefts as a child. Their confusion about truth is intergenerational, and its no wonder that they can't quite distinguish truth from error, when a clear, unchanging Standard was never taught to them. (And this is the case in homes all over the world, not just in Asia).

Something's missing. 
And that is "the knowledge of the glory of the LORD."  

Just one of the yummy meals my friend spoiled me with on her bed.

"Glory" comes from a Hebrew root word that denotes heaviness, and speaks of importance. It's translated so many ways in the Good Book because it seems to connote so many things. But I like to just go back to the root, "heavy, weighty." It helps me to understand: God is heavy. He carries weight. That's ultimately what we mean, when we talk about His glory. He is a big deal. He is the big deal!

If you've grown up in a home where truth was taught, and you haven't wandered particularly far from it, perhaps you (like me) have sometimes felt you have no story to tell. No dramatic tear-filled conversion, teenage pregnancies or prison stays to report.

"My parents taught me about the true God.
I believed, and still believe."

Kind of boring, right?
Won't draw a crowd, will it?

Sometimes I've even thought that my story of finding rest in gentle, humble Je'sus from a young age would be something people of other backgrounds couldn't relate to at all. It almost made me wish I had a more dramatic darkness-to-light testimony to share.

But one day, as I thought about this phrase, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea," I realized the eternal significance of a believing parent's work. A parent who raises his child with the knowledge of God is creating on a small scale the future earth that God speaks of here. He is structuring a mini-society in his home, where God is honoured (or "heavy") as He should be, and where truth cuts a straight line between wrong and right. 

That parent knows that when the child faces life on earth in its current condition, truth will be fallen in the street. But in his home, he seeks to create a solid base, full of the knowledge of Him, so his child is ready to make decisions grounded in who God is and what He has done.

What the wise parent knows is that when we don't allow God to be heavy, we end up carrying a lot of heaviness of our own, on our own.

What I realized is that my story wasn't boring; it was the kind of story that ideally everyone would have. God meant for every human's ideas to be shaped by truth-telling mediatorial authorities (like parents, teachers, elders) who let Him, as ultimate authority, have sway in every area.

I was raised with the knowledge of the glory of God, and by God's grace, accepted it early on—and my life has had a kind of lightness and straightforwardness to it that others who have come to know Him later have not experienced. That does not mean that I have had no problems, but I just mean that when we realize His weight at thirty or sixty...it takes a lot more soul-scraping to change from seeing things our way to seeing things His way.

The story of Rosaria's discovery of the glory of God is one of my favourites, because she is so articulate about the enormous worldview shift that came about when she came to know Him in her thirties:
"I discovered that God isn't just a narrative we pick like summer berries or leave for the next person; nor is God a set of social conventions tailored for the weak of mind, nor is God a consumerist social construct to exist in the service of Christian imperialist ideologies and right-wing politics. Rather, I discovered that God through Jesus Christ exists, the triune God…exists, whether we acknowledge him or not. I discovered that God wasn't very happy with me."
She goes on,  
"This wordconversionis simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreak that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God.... When I became a [follower], I had to change everythingmy life, my friends, my writing, my teaching, my advising, my clothes, my speech, my thoughts....."
As Rosaria discovered, God was, is, and always will be weighty. He doesn't become glorious when we discover Him; He always has been. But the question is, do we acknowledge Who He really is? Or will we be bowed with our own burdens forever?

When He gets heavy in our own hearts, life changes. The general distinctions between truth and lies fall firmly into place. When God is heavy, we know the Standard: He is the standard. If we're willing to call wrong wrong, and right right, He gives us power to walk in the right and not the wrong. 

A few years ago I heard a wedding reception speech in which the father of the bride said that he had begun to pray for his children before he even had a wife. I knew that he had sought to raise His children to know and love God. And on that day, as he watched his daughter marry a man after God's own heart, his eyes shone and his joy was full. The baton was being passed in the relay of truth: another home where, by God's grace, they could perpetuate a legacy of preaching God as the heavyweight in all areas. Their home could be as full of the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as any home on earth could be.

But if you were raised in a family tree with amputated limbs, by a mother with a wandering eye, or by a father who didn't acknowledge the truth...there is just as much hope for you as for anyone else, though learning the knowledge of Him does take time. It takes time to rethink life, to let Him be heavy, to acknowledge His glory in every area of your life. 

I sat many times on a third bed in Asia, hearing out a third friend as she described the changes happening in her soul after she realized who God is, and started letting Him be the heavyweight in her life. The process was and still is difficult for her, and for anyone who lives in light of His glory (whether raised with the knowledge of God's glory or without).

But it's far better than the alternative. Because when He's not heavy, everything else is. 

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! 

"For the earth will be filled 
with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, 
as the waters cover the sea." —God to Habakkuk

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." —J'esus

"Throw all your worry on Him, 
because He cares for you." —Peter

"Give your burdens to the LORD, 
and He will take care of you...." —David

July 15, 2015

astounding grace

Tonight an Asian friend in Europe heard a definition of grace. It went something like this, "Imagine that you parked illegally, and deserved a parking ticket. You had absolutely no money to pay the fee. The lady writing up tickets filled out your ticket, but then proceeded to pay it herself. She showed you completely undeserved kindness—that is grace." A fairly simple definition, right?

I wish I had a picture of our friend's face at that moment, when he heard Biblical grace described for the first time. He was utterly astounded; he had never heard of such a thing. To him, grace carried the idea of balancing something out, not receiving something completely undeserved....even if only a paid parking ticket.

Tonight's Asian brought me bangles. I didn't mind!

Earlier today I spoke to a sweet friend back in Asia. I told her that I had met someone here, from her homeland, that made me think of her.

"I know you're a woman," I quipped, "but this man reminds me of you."

She laughed, "How is that? Does he wear specs?"

"No," I smiled. "He cares about spiritual things. He wants to know God and know truth. Making a difference matters to him."

Then I told her that if God were to give a job in her country to my husband, we would seriously consider moving back there. She tried to convince me otherwise.

"There is so much injustice here, Julie. Women are not safe. And what if you have children? You wouldn't want them to be raised here...." She concluded, "If he has an opportunity to have a job in a better place, really you should take it." 

But this evening, when I saw a simple definition of grace make an Asian almost jump off his chair, I remembered why I left my heart in his homeland—because principles like grace, that are part of my everyday experience, are virtually foreign to most there. Theirs is a land with many spiritually-minded people, and a land where a little truth goes a long way.

We know that astounding grace, and for us, the question is—does it make us leap out of our chairs? Would we go a long way, for a little truth?

July 13, 2015

beyond this valley

[I wrote this post about a week ago, near the end of what I hope was our first and last heat wave of the summer].

We've had a string of sweltering summer days here. Despite my tropical roots and my mostly-hot time in Asia, this European heat wave is still withering me! Our third floor apartment never really seems to fully cool off, and this country is too praktisch to have air conditioning (after all, it only gets this hot for a few weeks each year). So we're taking extra showers, keeping lights off, avoiding baking, and drinking iced coffee. I stopped while writing this paragraph, to go water to drink, because it's just that hot.

We're struggling to have the energy to work in this heat, even with the luxury of cold water and regular meals. But we have friends who can't drink water or have a snack whenever they want. Many people in our city aren't eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset (about 3:30am and about 9:30pm here) for 30 days. One such friend moved to northern Sweden a few months ago, and he couldn't have chosen a worse time and place to celebrate Ramadan—this year it falls at the hottest time of year, and at the time when there is virtually no night. Our friend, and others who follow the same religion and live in the North, have a difficult decision to make: not to eat for days on end could endanger their bodies, but to eat could apparently endanger their souls. Knowing of their physical affliction, along with their spiritual hunger and thirst, reminds me of how blessed we are, even on these fiercely hot days.

It is fascinating to watch ancient religions, which were formerly separated by huge distances, stumbling into today's smaller, more connected world. I don't suppose Muhamm'ad started this fast maliciously, realizing that for some people, their days would be twenty-two hours long, followed by only a two-hour night. He likely knew nothing of Sweden; fasting during daylight hours worked where he lived. It was a local standard taught to a local community.

We could say that religions like his are culture-bound. As the travel time between different cultures and religions shrinks, and secularism raises more skeptics, world religions—each one claiming to teach universal truth—are put to the test. Do they work cross-culturally? Can they function on a different continent? Most importantly, can people of other cultures be convinced of and transformed by their message?

The more I learn of the traditions of various religions, the more I realize that their laws are covered in the fingerprints of men. Their very creeds are created by finite men, held captive by time and space, laying down principles for the world that they knewlaws that worked in their era, customs that fit their local culture. 

In Asia I have dear friends who are part of a religious sect that is quite well-known in that area, but ill-recognized in the rest of the world. My friends took me to temples or funerals, and once I even climbed one of their holy sites, a temple-covered hill, to see the thousands of idols at the top. I remember watching a procession celebrating the end of an important fast in our city. The ones who had successfully completed the fast were triumphantly paraded through the streets on painted elephants or in ornate carriages. I wondered to myself that several million people belong to this faith, yet most of the rest of the world has never heard of it.

My friends spoke with pride of their faith community, but they really didn't know the details of their religion. If we asked the details behind a fast, or about the ins and outs of the food laws, they would suggest that we meet with a wise uncle who read their holy writings. Other times they would recommend us to a lauded teacher who was coming to town, who could give us answersthough we never pursued it so far.

For the faithful, their diet was extremely limiting, with anything from potatoes and carrots to eggs and meat being banned year-round, and various other periods of time when they were expected to fast. In a desert climate with temperatures known to soar above +45°C, the esteemed priest or nun equivalents are not to use electricity (though having someone else turn on the fan for them is sometimes a way out) and they can travel only by foot. These are just a few of the boundaries placed on them by their system.

Their beliefs were an endless maze for me. Their practices constantly raised questions that I wondered why they did not ask. For example, why would God create food full of helpful nutrients, and make it available to you, only to tell you to scramble for ingredients to assemble less nutritious meals? If God rewards those who climb various holy mountains in remote parts of southeast Asia, how is that fair to the lame, the elderly, the sick, or people who live far from the religious headquarters? Most importantly, I always wondered, how can a religion deemed as the one, true way have been around for 3,000 years and still be a side sect in a few states in Asia? If this is the truth, why don't we see people relocating from all over the world to live at the base of this mountain and acquire good karma? Such questions were not voiced. (Critical thinking is less valued than respect to elders—to pose such queries would be disrespectful. The easiest path to peaceful relationships, which they value deeply, is to not think too critically).

Unfortunately, the answer to the questions I wanted to ask lies in the fact that their religion was made by people trapped in human culture. The esteemed elders may have had a form of godliness, but even if they climbed to the top of their holy mountain on a clear day, they literally couldn't see more than a valley or two away, let alone see the hearts of men, or see the future. So they created a religious system that seemed to answer the big questions of life...at least in their valley, or in their region of the desert.

These short-sighted and specific laws only make sense in a particular place or time. This problem is not unique to Asian religions. Think of the Amish, and their laws about technology or attire which seem so cumbersome today. Remember Mormons back-pedaling on the issue of African-Americans not being allowed in their church, because that started to look bad? Orthodox Jews struggle to understand how the Torah's laws should be kept in today's era (because they don't see that the law has already been fulfilled in Christ).

If a religion claims to have a universal message or offer universal salvation, its message needs to resound universally. In fact, it needs to rise above culture and offer something that reaches the spirit of every man and woman. It needs to be flexible enough to be applicable in any time or location, yet robust enough to not be crushed by opposition. One of the greatest proofs of the Bible's uniqueness is its ability to transcend culture.

In Christianity, the structure of truth is solid, but the way in which it is carried out is quite flexible. Here are just a few examples that came to mind as I considered this:
  • Worship regulations: Christians have been given a precedent of worshiping corporately on Sunday, and of regularly remembering His death and resurrection. But if they live in Central Asia and have a Thursday-Friday weekend, or provide essential services on Sunday, there is no rule that condemns getting together on another day. For the remembrance meeting, we were given an example of using wine and unleavened breadbut I've had it with mango juice and chapati, or bread with yeast and grape juice, and it works! Christians enjoy visiting Jerusalem and some enjoy Jewish traditions, but there is no compulsion to visit there during a believer's lifetime, nor to pray facing a holy location.
  • Food regulations: I wrote a whole post on this because I think followers of Christ should know and preserve their liberty in the area of food—it's a big part of what makes Christianity so transferable worldwide!
  • Beverage regulations: We are clearly taught not to get drunk, but other than that, Christians vary greatly on their views about alcohol consumption.
  • Clothing regulations: We are taught to dress modestlybut we are free to interpret that in a way that works in our culture. There is no mention of gingham or plaid, burkas or burkinis, saris or kimonos. 
  • Special days: Christians get lumped in with everyone else, because we are said to have our festivals (Christmas, Easter) just like they do, but really, there is no compulsion from the Scriptures that we are to celebrate those days at all, and no threat of punishment if we don't.
  • Marriage and family regulations: Our book deals with gender roles, but it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation of how exactly those roles play out.
The New Testament was certainly written in an ancient culture by men who were products of their time and place, just as the other "holy" books were. Those men couldn't see beyond their "valley" or the next any better than another author of one of the world's great religious texts could. So how did a burly bunch of near-Eastern fishermen pen words that a European psychology student friend of ours called "modern"? How did they have the foresight to write words that are still expounded by intellectual preachers in New York? How is it that the Bible's message is relevant in cultures anywhere from the mountain peaks of Switzerland to the overgrown valleys of Papua New Guinea?

The Book we have could only have been breathed by an infinite God who could see past, present and future, and who knows our inner person. There is no other valid explanation for how our Book transcends culture. John Stonestreet writes, "the Bible transcends cultural trends and realities because the Bible is the context of all cultures." To say it another way, Truth existed before culture; culture did not generate Truth. The Bible explains our common identity, origin, purpose, and destiny because its author wrote our story. Our religion transcends culture because it diagnoses and remedies what ails the human spirit, no matter the colour of the body containing the spirit. It works on every continent, in every country.

It's evening here now, and the weather has cooled considerably, for the first time in four or five days. The night breeze tumbles through our kitchen window, as my mind goes to our various thirsty friends. They have strong family ties have widely-varying cultures, presuppositions and philosophies. At times I wonder if the Word is the universally life-giving Bread and Water that it claims to be. Does it really quench thirst cross-culturally? Can people of other cultures really be fed by its message? Or is it just a local phenomenon? Is it just convincing in my valley?

The best way to know if our "product" works is to test it, to give it out. They can't know if our bread is good unless they taste it; they can't drink of our water unless we put it on the table.

A few nights ago, as another hot Ramadan day ended, our Syrian friend said his prayers facing Mecca (previously only known as "the vacuum cleaner corner") on a bath towel my husband arranged for him on the floor. He then broke his fast with a meal that we ate together at 10pm. He was revived, drinking cold water, serving up his share of supper, and laughingly recounting incidents from his childhood. Our visit started and ended late, and by the time the guests left, the dishes were washed and we fell into bed, we were hot and exhausted. But just our bodies were tired; our spirits were alive. Because at one point after dessert, when I looked up at our Syrian friend, I could see in his eyes that more than his body was being fed and watered. His spirit was eating and drinking, too. And to give that food and water, we'd heat our already-hot kitchen and stuff the freezer with ice cubes a thousand times over.

This religion works, friend, in more than just our valley—"to Jerusalem...Judea...Samaria...and to the ends of the earth." Hand a loaf to a hungry one, or a cup to a thirsty one, and see for yourself.

"With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

"This is the bread that comes down from heaven, 
so that one may eat of it and not die. 
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. 
If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. 
And the bread that I will give 
for the life of the world is my flesh." 

"But whoever drinks of the water 
that I will give him will never be thirsty again. 
The water that I will give him will become in him 
a spring of water welling up to eternal life." 

"Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; 
and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!"